Is Coke Rethinking Woke?
Why the soft-drink giant is pulling back from its left-wing posturing.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C onservatives who are tempted to despair over the abrupt shift of major corporations into engines of left-wing culture war might want to take a look at Coca-Cola. Recent developments suggest that Coke is rethinking woke.
Coca-Cola has been creeping in a more woke direction for a while. In March 2020, the company blasted U.S. Soccer for making legal arguments in the equal-pay lawsuit filed by the women’s team, a lawsuit the women soon lost in court. In June 2020, Coca-Cola announced that it was suspending advertising on Facebook and Instagram, joining a coalition of left-wing advocacy groups “as part of a campaign forcing the social media network to more stringently police hate speech and disinformation.” The boycott was openly directed at Facebook’s refusal at the time to censor posts by Donald Trump. Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey issued a “Where We Stand on Social Justice” manifesto:
[W]e must put our resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism…We will invest our resources to advance social justice causes. We will use the voices of our brands to weigh in on important social conversations. For example, today we are announcing $2.5 million in grants from The Coca-Cola Foundation for the Equal Justice Initiative to assist advocates and policymakers in the critically important work of criminal justice reform; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in support of the “Policing Reform Campaign;” and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to deliver a platform to bring people together for powerful conversations that matter and inspire social change and their current “Campaign for Equal Dignity.”
Yet, the company’s concern for justice is decidedly one-sided: for all its activism in the U.S., it lobbied against a bill that would ban products made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province.
Coca-Cola grabbed headlines in February of this year for the company’s “diversity” initiatives. Most notoriously, leaked slides from a training program commanded Coca-Cola employees to “try to be less white.” Then, the company issued strict requirements to its outside counsel to mandate the selection of lawyers on the basis of race:
Coca-Cola’s new general counsel Bradley Gayton recently announced a new set of diversity guidelines for outside counsel. Under these guidelines, outside counsel will commit that for any new matter “at least 30% of each of billed associate and partner time will be from diverse attorneys, and of such amounts at least half will be from Black attorneys.” If outside counsel fails to meet the commitment over two quarters, it will incur “a non-refundable 30% reduction in the fees payable for such New Matter going forward until the commitment is met.”
At the time, NR contributor Ed Whelan walked through some of the legal and practical problems with this heavy-handed approach.
When the Georgia elections law passed in late March, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey blasted it as “unacceptable,” and appeared to be under pressure from left-wing activists to go further: “In recent weeks, activists staged a ‘die-in’ at Coca-Cola’s museum in Atlanta. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential Atlanta pastor, used a bullhorn on the street to call for a boycott of Coca-Cola.”
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Republicans noticed, and began to push back. On April 6, Rand Paul and Donald Trump called for boycotts of Coke (although Trump was subsequently spotted with a Diet Coke on his desk). Several legislators in Coca-Cola’s home state of Georgia pulled Coke products from their offices, and Ted Cruz asked on Twitter, “I wonder who the largest institutional purchasers of @CocaCola are? Do they all agree with #WokeCoke radical politics?”
Then, a funny thing happened. On April 10, dozens of corporate chieftains met to consider sanctions against Georgia. Instead, they ended up issuing a vaguely worded statement about voting rights that did not even mention the state. And Coca-Cola, along with fellow Georgian behemoth Delta Air Lines, was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories. Instead, on April 14, the company issued a decidedly conciliatory statement:
We believe the best way to make progress now is for everyone to come together to listen, respectfully share concerns and collaborate on a path forward. We remain open to productive conversations with advocacy groups and lawmakers who may have differing views. It’s time to find common ground. In the end, we all want the same thing – free and fair elections, the cornerstone of our democracy.
Then, on April 21, the next shoe dropped: Gayton, the general counsel, abruptly left after just eight months on the job, taking “a $4 million sign-on payment and a monthly consulting fee of $666,666” to transition into a “strategic consultant role.” That’s a rather expensive way to rid yourself of a senior corporate officer who has spent less than a year with the company.
On April 27, Law.com’s Corporate Counsel reported that Monica Howard Douglas, Gayton’s replacement and a 17-year veteran of Coca-Cola’s legal department, refused to discuss Gayton’s resignation, but told the company’s legal department that Gayton’s departure meant a “pause” on the company’s controversial diversity initiatives:
Douglas reportedly offered a few hints about the fate of Gayton’s diversity plan, though concrete details remain elusive…When asked about Gayton’s diversity initiative, Douglas indicated that Coca-Cola was “taking a pause for now” but would likely salvage some parts of the plan, the source said. Douglas didn’t provide any additional details about what would remain and what would be scrapped, according to the source. “She said she … plans to use some of it, but everything is being evaluated. They plan to adopt some of his strategies and passions. Everything was, ‘More to come,’” the source added.
Neither Douglas, nor Gayton, nor Coca-Cola is talking to the media about any of this right now, but read the tea leaves: Within a span of three weeks, the company came under public fire from prominent Republicans, swiftly de-escalated its rhetoric on the Georgia law, saw its general counsel hastily resign, and saw his replacement declare a “pause” on his most heavily criticized efforts. It certainly looks as if Coca-Cola has reached a corporate decision to pull back from a partisan and ideological posture that actively antagonized half the country, including the state government of where Coca-Cola is headquartered.
Most big companies do not insert themselves into so many hot-button political debates in such a short span, and not every large company has equally large direct competitors, as Coca-Cola does. But there should be a lesson here for conservatives. Companies may drift into wokeness in order to avoid conflict with the squeaky wheels on Twitter and in the world of left-activism, but they are fundamentally risk-averse. The people pushing Coca-Cola to the left are extremely loud, but there are not really that many of them. If conservatives fight back, we can convince more companies to stay out of culture-war politics and partisanship.